The Life and Art of a Passionate Observer
1999 Slatten Award, Virginia Historical Society
1999 Mary Ellen LoPresti Award, Art Libraries Society of North America, Southeast Chapter
2000 Library of Virginia Literary Award for Non-fiction
American artist Robert Gwathmey (1903-1988) was a leading member of the Social Realist movement that flourished from the 1930s through the 1950s. Like his fellow Social Realists, Gwathmey sought to use his art to expose privilege and pretense, demand social justice, and call for major changes in the prevailing socioeconomic system.
Gwathmey was an eighth-generation Virginian of Welsh heritage, and throughout his life his main artistic themes were race relations and his native South. He is perhaps best remembered as the first white American painter to depict African Americans in an unromanticized, respectful manner. Using a unique style that combined a deliberate two-dimensional flatness with deep and vivid colors, Gwathmey illuminated the inherent dignity of the tenant farmers and sharecroppers who were his subjects.
As a lifelong activist against injustice, Gwathmey was kept under surveillance by the FBI for nearly thirty years. Using Gwathmey's FBI file, along with numerous interviews and archival records, Michael Kammen crafts a compelling portrait of an engaging American painter in the midst of dramatic social and political change.
"Kammen's book demonstrates that, in quietly documenting injustice and the daily efforts to withstand it, artist Robert Gwathmey. . . . left us a clear-eyed visual record of a turning point in racial, regional, and cultural history."
--New York History
"The general reader will find this book, with its forty-eight color plates and sixty-seven black and white illustrations, a colorful and informative account of Robert Gwathmey's life and work. . . . This book is a much-needed contribution not only to the scholarship on Gwathmey, but also to the ongoing study of the relationships between art and politics within the field of American art history."
--Reviews in American History
"Gracefully written and beautifully produced, this biography brings Gwathmey's art into sharp focus. . . . When Kammen is situating Gwathmey in relation to other contemporary artists or interpreting his work as response to social and historical context, his authority as a cultural historian proves a formidable interpretive resource."
--Journal of American History
"[A] fascinating book. . . . crammed full of colourful details."
"An expansive, meticulously researched account of Richmond-born artist Robert Gwathmey."
--North Carolina Historical Review
"Researching and writing as passionately as Gwathmey prepared and executed his own works, Kammen has firmly established his subject as an important member among the group of social realists who flourished in the U.S. from the 1930s to the 1950s. . . . Utilizing a wide and rich variety of archival and other material, and considering Gwathmey within the context of art history and those he admired, his history and aesthetics are given equal treatment and assessment. The reader is treated to 70 very good quality black-and-white images and nearly 50 excellent color images of the work. . . . Well produced and . . . highly recommended."
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